HE Congress, for some time now, has been targeting the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre over attempts at blocking dissents everywhere. But in Assam, the grand old party’s own government is trying to gag the voices of an influential segment of the civil society.
In an 18 September circular addressed to the principals of provincialised colleges, the Director of Higher Education of Assam has asked college teachers not to write articles, not even a letter to the editor, in newspapers, without prior approval of the government.
That’s not all. Invoking relevant provisions of the Assam Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1965, it has also put a blanket ban on college teachers’ appearance on TV debates and even on airing views through interviews.
The diktat has kept the contribution of articles of literary, artistic and scientific nature outside the purview of the proscription. Yet the exception has raised the question as to who will define a particular piece as being artistic and scientific in nature?
Apart from the legal complicacy involved in the implementation of this blanket ban, the raison d’être of this rather uncalled for misadventure is still shrouded in mystery.
The circular clearly seeks to treat provincialised college teachers as civil servants on the strength of the controversial section 15 of the Assam College Employees (Provincialisation) Rules 2010.
Such prohibitory provisions, that are part of the Central Civil Services Conduct Rules, are not known to have been used with equal measure and spirit for teachers of Central universities and other institutes of higher education that are run by the Centre.
Quite understandably, the Assam College Teachers’ Association has dubbed the move as ‘discriminatory’ and ‘unconstitutional’. It alleges that the gag order is an infringement on the Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed by Article 19 (i)-a of the Indian Constitution.
Can one really think of the edit and op-ed pages of mainstream English dailies without the erudite article by a Prabhat Patnaik, a Jayati Ghosh or a C P Chandrashekhar ~ all of whom incidentally happen to be on government pay roll at their respective institutes?
Even in Assam, one has not surely missed the luminous appearance of the likes of Hiren Gohain, Udayitya Bharali, D N Bezbaruah and Sujit Choudhury in the opinion pages of the vernacular Press.
They were all college or university teachers when they contributed profusely to Assam’s print media and they never had to mellow down their critical tone or anti-government stand. There have never been attempts to discipline them by invoking the provisions of the Conduct Rules that are actually meant for bureaucrats.
The whole design of the Assam government move appears to be all the more intriguing when tallied with the guidelines of the UGC, the apex body in the field of higher education in India.
Section 17-I (iv) of the UGC Regulation 2010 exhorts college and university teachers to express “free and frank opinion… towards the contribution of knowledge.”
In section 17-VII (iii), the UGC expects teachers to “be aware of the social problems and take part in such activities as would be conducive to the progress of society and hence the country as a whole.”
Teachers are also advised to inculcate in their students the “ideal of democracy” in section 17-II-(v).
If the Union ministry of human resources development, under whose auspices the UGC operates, wants college teachers to express their opinion highlighting social problems etc, why on earth the Congress government in Assasm has to think the other way?
(Joydeep Biswas is an associate professor of economics at Cachar College, Silchar, Assam. To see all his previous articles, click here)
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